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Well, hello again! I’ve been taking a break from blogging after struggling with health issues post-car accident, but it is time to talk about books. I cannot miss an opportunity to talk about books with you all!

Here are this year’s stats. I’ve read 52 books this year, a little bit down from last year. (My usual goal is 60, and I’m hoping I’ll get closer to that number by the end of the year.)  About a third of those books were adult speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), which is in line with my usual reading habits. I read a lot less YA than normal, which makes sense given I was writing a novel that wasn’t YA. I read a lot more romance than usual, mostly fueled by my fondness for Georgette Heyer, who I definitely recommend reading while recovering from a brain injury. 79% of my reading was written by women, the same as last year, and 25% of my reading was written by writers of color, also similar to last year.

My Favorite Volume of Poetry:

Night Sky with Exit Wounds, by Ocean Vuong

I haven’t read much modern poetry, but this volume made me want to read more. I like his sense of language and the emotionality of his poems.

My Favorite Romances:

The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer

Honestly it’s between this one and Frederica for my favorite Georgette Heyer Regency romance thus far. Why Georgette Heyer? Because she does some serious world building and in general doesn’t go in for weird modernizations for a historical. She does jump the shark occasionally plot-wise, but these two novels, if I remember correctly, are particularly solid in that regard. And swoon-worthy, which is what I want from a good romance.

The Undateable, by Sarah Title

After falling in love with Heyer’s work, I tried to find a modern romance writer I also liked. And finally after mostly despairing I stumbled upon this title. The female protagonist is a feminist librarian who likes little dogs so basically this book was written for me.

My Favorite Literary Titles:

These three works are as different as different can be, but all blew me away.

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

This novel is quite weird and effective in its weirdness. If you want something uncomfortable and surreal that makes you think, give it a try.

Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster

I found this classic about social conventions and mores and gender dynamics in turn-of-the-century (that’s 19th to 20th century, mind you) England to be surprisingly fascinating. I got so uncomfortable in the middle, and so sure my lovely protagonist was going to make a terrible and unsupportable error that I wanted to stop reading. I’m glad I didn’t.

Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay

What can I say about this short story collection? Well, Roxane Gay has become one of my favorite writers, largely based on these stories. I kept sending my friend excerpts and links to various stories because I had to share them with someone as I read them. Roxane Gay has a clear eye for revealing poignant, painful, and uncomfortable truths through her fiction. Highly recommended.

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Do not be distracted by the little dog sleeping in the background.

My Favorite YA Novels:

Landscape with Invisible Hand, by M.T. Anderson

I love M.T. Anderson’s Feed so I was excited to try his newest science fiction YA novel, and while I didn’t love it as passionately as Feed, it was thought-provoking and well drawn, showing the personal effects of an alien invasion on one teenager, including the detrimental economic consequences. This novel has a small, mostly quiet scope that creeps up and knocks your socks off.

Jane Unlimited, by Kristin Cashore

This is one of my top three reads of the year (along with Roxane Gay’s collection and a science fiction novel we haven’t gotten to yet). Its structure is fascinating and  allows Kristin Cashore to play with several different genres (some speculative) in a way that really worked for me. I was worried she wouldn’t have an overall progression/arc across the entire novel, but she managed to do it. This book was crafted with such attention to detail, it stuns me to contemplate. If you enjoy parallel universes, art and being an artist, capers, spy shenanigans, really creepy shit, devoted dogs, and/or magical houses, you might enjoy this book. Or, you know, if you just want to read something brilliant.

My Favorite SF/F Novels/Novellas:

Mostly science fiction this year (except for The Stone Sky), which is very exciting!

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

I was a little nervous beginning this because the stakes felt high to me–would N.K. Jemisin land the ending to this fascinating trilogy? The answer is yes. She manages to tie all the threads together. Probably the must-read fantasy trilogy of this decade.

Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty

This clone generation ship murder mystery was a fun frolic; very entertaining and exactly what I was in the mood for when I read it.

Star’s End, by Cassandra Rose Clarke

There is some great character work in this science fiction novel about a woman poised to take over a powerful corporation from her ailing father. It asks important questions like: how much does your family inform who you are, and can you avoid their mistakes? How much does the past and your past choices inform who you are? What does it mean to make compromises for the greater good? What responsibility do we bear for other people’s past mistakes? How can we make amends to people we have betrayed or is that even possible? Ah, such a good book. It also involves terraforming and corporate espionage and first contact and clones (and oh how I love clone stories!)

Ninefox Gambit, by Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

The first two of a…trilogy, I assume?…of military science fiction fantasy, these books blasted into my life, full of originality and freshness. There was a certain curve figuring out what was happening in the first novel as I grew to understand the world, but the effort was well worth making.

All Systems Red, by Martha Wells

This page-turning novella featuring a “Murderbot” trying to protect her clients is almost painfully charming. The plotting and world building is top-notch here in a fun mystery-action adventure, but it is the inwardly misanthropic yet deeply caring android protagonist that steals the show and makes me love this story. And I got a sneak peek at the next two installments in the series, both due out in 2018, and they’re excellent as well!

The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks

And now we come to the third of my three favorite books of the year, and the last of the Culture series. I heard this book being recommended as an uplifting novel, which seemed like something I could do with this year, and then I heard it was Iain Banks’s last novel and he wrote it when he knew he was dying (I am not certain this is true, by the way, but it informed my decision to read it). And oh, this book. It deals with questions of death and the meaning of lives and entire cultures and species, and the anxiety of considering what comes after life as we know it.

I will say that overall this book didn’t get great reviews. It was long and a bit meandering and not a page-turner, and there were some holes and oversights. It is a flawed novel, yes. But for me it also managed to hit some relevant and powerful truths that made it very worthwhile for me. And I have to admit I have a weakness for Culture Ships, musicians who aren’t quite sure of their way, and questions of immortality. So it is a definite Amy book.

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And that completes my list. I’m glad I got to read so many interesting books this year, and as always I’m looking forward to MORE BOOKS. Feel free to tell me what you read that you most enjoyed this year; I’d love to hear your favorites!

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I was talking to a friend last week, and he said, “So what about the blog?”

I explained to him some of my thoughts about the blog. And then he said, “Well, why don’t you just be honest about it? What I always liked about your blog was how honest you were about everything.”

There are several reasons I haven’t been blogging much this last several months. The primary one, of course, is my health, and I’ve already written about that. But given what has been going on in the world, I’ve also been reluctant to blog because in some ways, it feels…weird. There is a dissonance between my personal experience of the world, which is what I blog about, and the greater events that are unfolding right now. And I have been uncertain about how to deal with that.

I feel like I want to give a constant disclaimer: I know there’s a lot of crazy shit going down in the world right now, and I’m aware of it, and that is the background context upon which everything else sits. Did you read that article last week about how an economist at MIT believes the U.S. is turning into a developing country for something like 80 percent of the population? That is the country I am living in. Anxieties about immigration, about health care, about nuclear war, about civil rights, about the rise of kleptocracy, these and many more are issues that those of us living in the United States are now stewing in.

I am also aware of exactly how lucky I am to be where I am now in my life. I write a lot here about taking opportunities to create personal change, to live an examined life, to heal what needs to be healed. I still believe this is incredibly important. In the past I have spent a lot of time thinking about why people don’t take the opportunities that are presented to them, and I have a lot to say on that subject. But recently I have been thinking much more about the many people who never received those opportunities in the first place, and I have little to say about it that other people are not saying better and from a stronger base of experience.

Finally, I spent all this time working on changing, and I’ve tried to give you a window to that experience through this blog. I spent years toiling away. And then I moved to a new place, and I was in an accident, and I sat and waited to heal, and now…

Everything is different.

It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, but it is the essential truth of my experience over the past year. Moving shifted everything, giving me a new foundation from which to work, and the changes I’d been working on for so long came together. Now I can see them informing my life in a variety of ways, and many of them no longer take so much work to maintain. It feels sudden even though it was anything but sudden.

So I’ve needed time to process how things are different, and it’s also a little uncomfortable that just when the outer world completely explodes is when I’m doing so well in many ways personally (except for health stuff, of course.) It feels strangely perverse to feel so much gratitude and well-being when so much shit is going down.

But I’ve had some downtime now, and I do still hope to blog sometimes. Here on the Practical Free Spirit, I write about my experiences, for better or for worse. My friend is right; I’m very honest in my writing here. I try to say what is true even when I’m playing with language or can’t get into specifics. So that is what I will try to continue to offer you: the truths as I see them, both small and large, and mostly personal.

I know these might not be what you need, but they are what I have to offer you. I know in the grand scheme of things I am not important; I say this not to be humble but to put things into perspective. I know times are hard, and it looks like they might get worse. But if my story can entertain you, or divert you, or give you a modicum of comfort or insight, then I am not wasting my time.

Writers write, even in challenging times. In the novel My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, a writing teacher tells the protagonist, “You will have only one story….You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

This is my story. It is the one I have to tell.

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It’s time for my year-end reading wrap-up posts. It’s been a weird year for many reasons, but over the course of the year I’ve still been able to read about the same amount as last year, so that makes me happy. As does talking about my most interesting reads!

First, some stats. I’ve read 56 books this year, and I expect I’ll probably read a few more before the year ends. About a third of the books I read were speculative fiction for adults, about the same as last year. Only 20% of the books I read this year were YA, which is less than usual, and I also read much less nonfiction than last year. The difference was made up in literary fiction and mysteries. 79% of my reading was by women, so I guess my theory that my ease in reading lots of women writers is because of my YA reading is only partly true. And 23% of my reading was by writers of color, which isn’t as good as last year but still not horrible. Given everything else that went on this year, I’ll take it!

In this post I’m going to talk about YA, literary fiction, and nonfiction. Then I plan to write another post all about the speculative fiction I read this year. Some of these titles are new and some are not, but they are all new to me.

YA titles:

Complicit, by Stephanie Kuehn. YA contemporary

I read this at the beginning of the year and so my memory of it is a bit fuzzy. But what I do recall is that it has some interesting unreliable narrator stuff going on, which I tend to enjoy when done well. Also some sibling stuff, which I also tend to like.

The Spectacular Now, by Tim Tharp. YA contemporary.

Apparently a movie has been made that is based on this book, and it’s supposed to be pretty good, but I haven’t seen it. What stands out to me about the book is its voice. Also it’s really dark, and it’s dark done well.

The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. YA magical realism

This book is so messed up, and I mean that in a good way. It’s beautifully written, and kind of strange, and you should just go read it right now.

Enter Title Here, by Rahul Kanakia. YA contemporary

Disclosure: Rahul is a friend of mine. This is his debut novel, and it features an unlikeable female protagonist who kicks butt (and who, incidentally, I like in spite of (or is it BECAUSE OF) her unlikeability). It also has some metafictional aspects that were fun.

Still Life with Tornado, by A.S. King. YA magical realism

I really like A.S. King’s work, plus by looking it up just now I’ve realized I’ve missed a title, so I’m feeling much joy. In this book, the protagonist begins meeting versions of herself at different ages as she struggles to come to terms with an abusive home life and what it means to be an artist. It’s kind of off-beat, and I love it. My favorite YA read of 2016.

Mystery titles:

The Peter Wimsey Mysteries, by Dorothy Sayers

I’ve been reading these during my convalescence, starting with Whose Body? Since I’ve already read almost every mystery Agatha Christie wrote, these are the next best thing. They are not overly taxing while still being interesting, which is not an easy feat. Lord Peter Wimsey is not my first choice of sleuth (he’s more in the Columbo school as opposed to the Poirot school that I like best), but he’s definitely been growing on me.

Nonfiction titles:

The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley (essays)

Would this book have made this list if the election had gone differently? Unclear. Hurley does write one mean essay. But I have found it to be of especial comfort given current events.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates (memoir)

This book is beautiful and raw and it hurts to read and you should read it. It isn’t an easy read but not all reads are meant to be. 

Literary fiction titles:

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

This is one of those novels that could be classified as literary or speculative, and was shelved in literary because of Atkinson’s previous work. It follows the life (or rather lives) of a female protagonist born in England shortly before World War I. Every time she dies, the book loops back and starts her life again, so we get to see all sorts of possibilities. You probably have to love this conceit to enjoy this book, and I do love it when it’s done well and isn’t too painfully repetitive. Atkinson did a good job on that front, and the book captured my imagination.

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Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood

I’m slowly chipping away at Atwood’s significant oeuvre, and this one did not disappoint. What she does here with voice and tense and POV is interesting and masterful. Set in Canada soon before the Civil War, a young doctor tries to determine if an imprisoned female servant is innocent or guilty of a double murder that happened many years before. It unfolds somewhat slowly but I found it to be entirely gripping.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This is a cycle of stories, all of which in some way or another feature the character Olive Kitteridge. In some stories she is the POV character, in some a supporting character, and in others she merely shows up in passing. In this way we get a multi-dimensional view of who this woman is and what her life has been. Strout is insightful about human behavior and has a keen eye for convincing details. One of my favorite reads of the year.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

One of my other favorite reads of the year, so much so that I wrote a love letter blog post to this book. I want to read it again, along with Olive Kitteridge. I feel like one time was not enough for either of these books.
All right then. Next time I’ll write about some speculative fiction I read this year. And in the meantime, let me know what books you most enjoyed this year. I could particularly use some YA recommendations, but all are welcome.

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Last week I talked about some great YA novels. Today I’m going to talk about my favorite nonfiction and SF/F titles I read this past year.

I read a lot more nonfiction than usual this year. I spent a month studying the memoir form, which contributed strongly to this change. In the novel category, outside of the YA genre, I read almost exclusively SF/F, which is also a bit unusual, but makes sense given that I spent so much more time reading nonfiction.

Favorite Nonfiction:

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion

I’d never read Joan Didion before, and for me it was like being wrapped up in warm velvet. Interesting prose, emotional depth, and poignant subject matter (grief and uncertainty) all combined to make this my favorite memoir read of the year.

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brene Brown

I love Brene Brown’s work and have referenced it more than once in this blog. This book expands on some of the ideas she presents in her popular TED talks. I didn’t find the entire book equally relevant, but it was still an influential read.

Story, by Robert McKee

I finally got around to reading this tome on screenwriting in specific, and storytelling principles in general, and it definitely taught me some interesting concepts and gave me useful food for thought.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

I think this book is so important, I wrote an entire blog post about it. This is a classic, and it deserves that distinction.

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Favorite SF/F novels:

Elysium, by Jennifer Marie Brissett (SF)

I read this novel towards the beginning of the year, so my memory of it isn’t as sharp as with the other books on this list. The impression I have left is that I really liked this book because it was weird and different. It was a challenging read, with not much spoon-feeding and a complicated structure and premise, and it was fun to try to keep up with it.

Apex, by Ramez Naam (SF)

A satisfying and page-turning conclusion to the Nexus trilogy, all three books of which I’ve really enjoyed.

Persona, by Genevieve Valentine (SF)

This one is a science fiction thriller. Populated by some fascinating characters, it has a bunch of action and spy-like sequences, while also focusing on political intrigue and maneuvering.  I hope there’s a sequel.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (SF)

This was my first Dick novel, and I was so happy it lived up to the hype. I was particularly impressed by the world building, and how Dick seemed to pick just the perfect telling details to flesh out his future world. He is so efficient! And he implies so much that the reader has to think about to truly appreciate.

Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie (SF)

Following Ancillary Justice, these novels were a bit different in that they didn’t have the same structure of one narrative in the present and one in the past. I actually felt the plots were stronger in these two, though, although perhaps that’s because I enjoy reading about political maneuvering so very much. And I think my favorite of the three might be the middle one, Ancillary Sword, which is quite rare.

 

And my two favorite SF/F novels I read this year:

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik (Fantasy)

It was like this book was written specifically for me. It is exactly what I like in my fantasy: a fairy tale feeling but while feeling fresh and not too derivative, magic with rules but not rules that force you to wade through dense walls of text to understand them, well-drawn and psychologically interesting characters, and lots of terrible obstacles. I liked how this started feeling like it was going to be telling a somewhat familiar story, but then it branched out into doing its own thing, which was even better since I didn’t really expect it. I also really liked the way it dealt with one of its central friendships. This reminded me a lot of Robin McKinley’s Kingdom of Damar books but aimed at a slightly older (aka adult) audience.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (SF)

It is a testament to the strength of this novel that even though I read it in—March?—this is still the book I think about when someone asks me what I’ve been reading lately and still the book I want to talk about. I loved this novel’s deft exploration and excavation of its characters. I loved the idea of a Shakespeare/music troupe wandering across a dangerous post-apocalyptic landscape. I loved the way the various strands of narrative interlaced through time and location and character. I loved this book so much.

Let me know if you found any new favorite books of your own this year!

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2015 was a mixed reading year for me. I didn’t fall head over heels with that many books in the first half of the year. In fact, I stopped reading altogether for a month this spring, which is unusual for me, and then spent the following month reading only nonfiction. Luckily things picked up in the summer, though, so I still have some great books to talk about.

So far this year I’ve read 56 books, which is one less than last year. However, I’m already partway through another book right now, with every expectation of finishing it, so I should finish the year on par or above last year’s mark, which makes me happy.

This year about a third of my reading was YA, a third was adult SF/F, and a third was nonfiction and memoir. Around 84% of the books I read were by women, which happens to be a bit higher than usual. Around 30% of the books I read were written by PoC, which is also higher than usual and something I have very consciously worked on.

Today I’m going to talk about the YA titles I particularly enjoyed reading this year. (Please note these aren’t all titles that came out this year, just ones that I happened to get around to reading.) Then on Tuesday I’ll talk about the (mostly science fiction) novels written for adults that I enjoyed, as well as the most impactful nonfiction I read.

Once again this year, the majority of my YA reading was contemporary YA (meaning YA set in the near-present day with no speculative element), as I’m finding these novels to be the strongest overall right now. I tried reading a few new high/historical fantasy YAs but was left mostly unimpressed (I’m in the middle of another one right now, so we’ll see how it goes). I did find a couple of speculative YA titles to recommend this year, along with several contemporary titles.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han (YA contemporary)

I discovered Jenny Han this year, and I read FIVE of her novels, mostly in great big gulps. This is my favorite of those five. I appreciated the voice, the characterizations (particularly of our protagonist), and the high concept romance angle.

All the Rage, by Courtney Summers (YA contemporary)

You might remember Courtney Summers from last year’s list. This is her newest novel, and I think it’s a very important one. To be clear, this novel was painful to read, and at times I had to force myself to keep going. It confronts rape culture head-on, which can be uncomfortable and upsetting. But it’s well written and shows a reality that too few novels dare to show.

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill (YA dystopia)

This is another incredibly dark novel that doesn’t pull its punches. It’s a YA futuristic dystopia about society’s obsession with how women look and act. It deals with the beauty myth and body image issues, as well as double standards of behavior based on gender. This book hurts. I felt wrung out when I finished it. But like All the Rage, it’s an important read and well done.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness (YA Fantasy)

I was completely charmed by this novel, which is told from the POV of one of the “normal” kids in a world full of Chosen Ones and dangerous supernatural happenings. In this way, it reminded me a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Zeppo,” in which Buffy is off stopping another apocalypse, but the episode follows the mostly unrelated adventures of Xander instead. The concept is great, and the illustrations of different kinds of relationships between the teen characters are very well done. The protagonist also deals with having OCD, which is addressed with realism and sensitivity.

It's always exciting when I love a book I already bought in hardback!

It’s always exciting when I love a book I already bought in hardback!

The Truth Commission, by Susan Juby (YA contemporary)

I love the frame story of this book so much! It’s presented as our protagonist’s narrative nonfiction project for her arts school, and there is so much scope for creativity and character expression in this concept. I found the psychology behind the conflicts and characters of this story to be fascinating, and the theme of truth (when it’s good to reveal/discuss the truth and when the truth can be harmful) is handled deftly here.

Trouble is a Friend of Mine, by Stephanie Tromly (YA contemporary)

A screwball mystery a la Veronica Mars and Sherlock? Yay! This book made Publisher’s Weekly’s best of the year list, which is how I found out about it, and I then proceeded to read it in about twenty-four hours of bliss. The banter is great here, and the plot is fun and just convoluted enough to stay interesting.

Have any YA titles you read this year that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments! And I’ll see you back here on Tuesday for more book talk.

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“In the end we always act in the dark.” – Rebecca Solnit

I have always been a big planner.

My parents were also planners. My mom made a to-do list every week, even though she had a weekly schedule that didn’t involve a lot of variation. We rotated through the same dinners on a weekly basis: Monday was spaghetti night, Friday was pizza night. My dad planned road trips precisely by mileage. I started learning how to budget when I was eleven.

I enjoy planning. A well-laid plan skillfully executed gives me joy. I like planning trips and parties and my social calendar and my writing projects. I like analyzing, and I like strategizing. I like the sense of accomplishment I receive from meeting goals and milestones.

But.

I also agree with Rebecca Solnit. There is an uncertainty inherent in being alive, in being human. We don’t know the time of our deaths. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We might have a good guess, we might hope, but we don’t know. Not for sure.

And sometimes life takes a sudden swift turn, and we end up on a train to Transylvania just because it sounds cool. Or we end up spending five days lounging on the couch unable to leave the house because we are so ill, or two years struggling to walk more than a block because we are so injured. We end up breaking hearts or having our hearts broken. We end up having one of those perfect moments that bubble up from time to time, whose very essence lies in their unpredictability.

Some things cannot be planned.

Some things–and I feel like I’m about to commit sacrilege by saying this–some things cannot be practical.

And sometimes embracing the reality of the darkness, of not being able to see the hand in front of our faces, of not knowing and sinking into the uncomfortable truth of not knowing–sometimes this is the only way forward.

It is through not being able to see or know that we are able to sink deep within and become aware of those truths that endure through the uncertainty, in spite of or perhaps even because of it.

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Schjelderup via Compfight cc

Rebecca Solnit discusses the role of uncertainty and darkness in the life of the artist in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” which is in her collection of essays Men Explain Things to Me (how could I not read a book with a title like that?) and which also was adapted for the New Yorker.

My discovery of this essay last week was timely. Unpredictable, even. I’m in that gap between novel drafts that I always find uncomfortable, and meanwhile I had a conversation that made me question what it means to me to be a writer.

Being a writer, or really any kind of artist, is filled with a weird kind of uncertainty. The creative process can be planned, it can be quantified, it can be optimized, and yet…. there’s this point, for me, when all of that falls away. The plans, the ambition, the practicality, no longer speak so loudly. It’s not that they’re gone, exactly, and they can sometimes be forced to the fore when necessary, but they are in service to creation, not the other way around. And things click the way they click. Unpredictably. Not not always in the way I planned.

Onto this conversation about my writing career. We spoke about the timescale, and the other person said (paraphrasing) he’d write as much as possible in order to succeed as quickly as possible. And, he said, regardless of questions of money, I wouldn’t want to keep writing forever if I never succeeded in getting books published, would I?

And practically speaking, I’d have to agree with him. But the funny things is, I don’t actually agree with him. Not at all. I’m a writer through and through. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing songs and music. It is so fundamentally folded into who I am, this compulsion to create, I would be bereft without it. It is one of the forces that has shaped who I am, something that feels simultaneously like something I chose and like something that chose me. I’m all in. And success (or at least this definition of success), while it is something I would like, is not the only part of the equation.

Being fully committed to being a writer in this moment feels like another definition of success.

Perhaps this is one of those things that has nothing to do with practicality. Perhaps being a writer is like swimming in the dark. You never know what you will find. In spite of your best efforts to chart your course, you never know exactly where you’re going.

I don’t know what the future holds. All I know is that I write.

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” So wrote Virginia Woolf.

Yes. The future is dark. It defies even the most perfect plans.

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Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

That is the message with which I was raised. Lie low, don’t make trouble, stay quiet, pretend what’s happening isn’t really happening. At all costs, please people. Make them like you, or at least make them not notice you exist. Same difference.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Which is perhaps why I find the implications behind the #KeepYAKind campaign so disturbing.

Quick recap: A critically acclaimed YA writer said a troubling and sexist thing in a public interview. Several critics have said that this writer’s portrayal of female characters leaves something to be desired. I have not read his work. (I was supposed to back in January, actually, as his latest critically acclaimed novel was a book club selection, but because I had heard of its problems, I decided to sit out that month. Life is too short, and I have way too many books to read.) As a result of this public interview, there was a public conversation about the problematic nature of this writer’s public comments and his work. There may or may not have been inappropriate behavior (aka harassment and bullying) towards this writer. I haven’t seen any evidence of it myself, but I didn’t spend a lot of time looking for it. #KeepYAKind was a Twitter campaign aimed at stopping the public criticism and conversation. The Booksmugglers write in more detail about it all.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Putneypics via Compfight cc

It is easy to imagine that whoever started #KeepYAKind had the best of intentions. We all like kindness, right? We don’t want to live and work in a community that supports bullying, do we? Of course we don’t.

The problem with #KeepYAKind is that, like many things on the internet, it lacks nuance. It distracts the focus from one problem–sexism in the publishing industry and YA fiction–and puts it on another problem. And it does so in a muddied way that, whether intentionally or not, works to shut down the conversation about sexism. In such a way it defends the status quo. It says, “Be quiet, women. You’re not allowed to talk about this problem because it isn’t nice.”

No, it isn’t nice. That is the entire point. Sexism isn’t nice. Being seen as a mysterious creature who is stranger and less fathomable than a giant alien insect isn’t nice. Being told not to discuss problematic things in fiction, even if you are a professional reviewer and THAT IS YOUR JOB, isn’t nice. (And, I mean, shouldn’t we all be allowed to discuss problematic things in fiction? I think so.)

But don’t rock the boat. Never mind that it’s sprung a leak or ten.

Whenever I see #KeepYAKind, I think #KeepYANice. Nice is don’t rock the boat. Nice is be a doormat, don’t stand up, don’t enforce your boundaries, don’t speak up when there’s a problem. Nice is not expressing an opinion that might be uncomfortable or difficult or controversial.

#KeepYAKind ignores the reality that sometimes the obvious act of kindness is not the best nor correct nor sustainable thing to do. Amy of a few years ago would have been shocked that I’m saying that, but I sincerely believe it to be true. Kindness is great, but sometimes you have to protect yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. Sometimes you have to stand up for other people too.

Sometimes you have to point out things that are problematic. Sometimes it’s your job to review and analyze a novel or a play or a movie, in which case it is certainly not your job to be kind. It is your job to be insightful and to shed light. It is your job to tell us your opinion. And some people are going to think publicly discussing a negative opinion isn’t very kind either. That’s their prerogative. It doesn’t change the job of those of us who analyze culture and media and society. We aren’t here to sugarcoat. We are here to talk about the things that need to be talked about.

Don’t rock the boat, Amy.

Someone told me recently that acknowledging problematic stuff gives it power. I couldn’t disagree more. Because when we aren’t allowed to acknowledge that something is going on, then nothing will ever change. The problem remains invisible. The status quo is effortlessly maintained. And when everyone is working together to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, it makes us begin to question ourselves, spending our energy on feelings of confusion and isolation instead of on positive change. Keeping busy ignoring a problem DOES NOT MAKE IT GO AWAY. I know some people think it does. I tend to not get along very well with those people.

Now, maybe this writer truly is a very nice guy. From all accounts, he is. And I have compassion for him, because saying something stupid in a public interview and then having the internet fall on your head can’t be very pleasant. Having to really deeply think about the fact that you find giant grasshopper aliens to be less mysterious than women can’t be very pleasant either. And I’m sure some people made disparaging remarks and the like, and that sucks. The internet kind of sucks. Being a public figure kind of sucks.

But we are still accountable, as artists and writers and human beings, for the words we say and the work we create. And that sucks too. It is hard to hold yourself accountable and still be brave enough to create. It’s hard to be an artist knowing you’ll screw up and make mistakes and probably say something really stupid in public someday. It’s hard to admit that perfection is not achievable, and that all we can do is the best we can, and then try to keep learning. It’s hard to realize that our work can be part of the problem, even if we had the very best of intentions.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about the problems in our literature and our pop culture and our society. That doesn’t mean we should stop thinking critically. That doesn’t mean we should look away when there’s a problem, burying our collective heads in the sand. It takes a lot of bravery to be an artist, and it also takes a lot of bravery to acknowledge a problem when it exists so we can work toward increased awareness and change. Both of these roles are important.

Don’t rock the boat? Whatever. I’ve already flipped the damn thing over.

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